October 12, 2009

State of the Tube-Thoughts on the Magic Mirror UPDATED

So as anyone who's been near me the last few months knows, I've been studying television a great deal. In a depressing summary, since May I've watched a great deal of (a great deal defined as anywhere between 2 episodes and several season)...

*Party Down
*Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles
*Mad Men
*Breaking Bad
*True Blood
*Battlestar Galactica
*Curb Your Enthusiasm
*30 Rock
*It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
*The Sopranos
*Gossip Girl
*Melrose Place (2009)
*The State
*Mr. Show
*Eastbound and Down
*Freaks and Geeks
*Friday Night Lights
*Corner Gas
*Bored to Death
*Black Books
*Modern Family

That's 29 tv shows, with an average of about 8 episodes each (and in some cases many many more). In just 4 months. That's a little depressing. Good lord that's extremely depressing.

In my defense, all have been on DVD or on the computer, meaning I've watched at most a handful of ads, and all the shows have been on my own timeschedule. Similarly, none of them were cartoons, and well. I don't know. I did other stuff! I didn't watch all that many movies. I read a lot, I've written a fair amount. I spent time with people, I danced, I played music! But still. Well. I just graduated college. Gimme a break. Hopefully the next four months will have fewer.

The reason I'm publishing this embarassing little list (beyond simply wanting to make sure that should any potential date googles my name she'll be scared off), is to suggest that I know a thing or two about television. In fact, I'll take the crown of resident TV guru at Awkward Haiku. Matt might try to fight it. Ben, Bryan, and Andrew all watch a fair amount of tv. But I'll stake out my place as Television guru. And to back that up, I'm going to make some claims about the idiotbox.

And if you look at that list, you'll see that almost all the entries on there aired just in the last few years. The oldest show on there is from the mid-90s. Only 6 aired during the 90s, and 2 of those started in 99, and another 2 spent the majority of their life span in the 2000s. So that's 79-85% 2000s shows. And remember the shows of the 70s/80s? Well probably not, I'm guessing the average reader age to be around 22, maybe 24. But try to watch something from long ago--almost certainly awful (exceptions of course to be made for British TV). The 90s were a bit better, but still. Friends, CSI, and Everybody Loves Raymond ruled. The 2000s has featured, sure, a whole lot of awful TV (CSI, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Friends, for instance). But the amount and variety of quality television has rapidly expanded.

TV is dramatically better and more interesting over the last 10 years. Disagree in the comments section, maybe we can have another post arguing it out later. But premise one of this post is that since roughly the year 2000, television has become dramatically better and smarter.

We can probably date this with the success of the Sopranos. Hugely successful, culturally important, but aimed at a niche market. Intelligent, funny, dark, adventurous with style, well-acted, featuring an antihero. Really revolutionary for its time. Copycat programs came out quickly, so much so that now the wounded antihero has become its own cliche (see the AV Club's Antihero article), many terrible, some brilliant. A few years later, ABC had its ratings bonanza when they went for narrative shows like Lost and Desperate Housewives, winning over the ratings night. Adult Swim taught the executive there was money to be had in easily amused crackheads, the British office suggested that people weren't total idiots when it came to realizing when they were supposed to laugh, and Arrested Development spread a gospel of silly screwball absurdity. In short, we're living in a relative golden age of funny shows, tragic shows, and everything in between. While it's true, reality shows and crime procedurals continue unabated, it's so easy to ignore them with all the phenomenal tv out, it's like they don't exist. Reading writeups of a recent independent film conference, the part that jumped out at me was the fear that "the smartest stories are being told on television now instead of in movies."

So, with that fact in mind, let's ask why that is. I propose 3 major reasons: the rise of basic cable, the rise of DVDs/DVR, the oversaturation of the 90s independent film scene.

One of the media stories of the 1990s was the explosion of interest in independent film. We all heard the stories about Quentin Tarantino, Stephen Soderbergh, and Kevin Smith. I know I got ecstatic at hearing about Linklater and the boys, and got really into film because of these guys and the potential contained in the Sundance generation.

Sadly of course, that was me and 3 million others, along with collapse of independent financing, some truly awful indy cliches, and a glutted market. The smoke is still clearing from that debacle--and I'm not convinced independent film is as toast as people make it out to be (or at least I hope not)--but one of the first pieces of fallout is that a whole lot of talented people with storytelling dreams came to hollywood, but couldn't get their movies made. They did however, find themselves in a television market. Rob Lowe started out making Tarantino knockoffs in the mid90s. Now he produces Entourage. Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Sideways, etc.) produces Hung, Mark Johnson (produced way too many movies. wikipedia him) produces Breaking Bad. Rob McElhenny started out in movies, the list goes on.

Sure, most of the people making these TV shows have worked in TV for a while. But there are enough people working on all of them coming from this world that it makes sense.

DVDs speak for themselves. Since DVDs became the majority of the recorded video market sometime in 2002, along with the rise of Tivo and other timeshifters at the same time, they've radically redefined how most people watch TV. People watch a whole lot of episodes in a row now, while even ten years ago that was a hassle at best, and impossible at worst. People rewatch episodes now, in ways that would be unthought of just 10 years ago. Through the 90s, TV was largely meant to be aired once, and never seen again. Plots and gags repeated themselves wildly, long running difficult plots were frowned upon because...well... who would remember? Technology changes the form. Look at the form now.

Even television history has changed. Twin Peaks' 2nd season has gone from being remembered as a total dropping off point in quality to being reappraised as some of its best work. The State has been revived (for some reason). So on.

And cable seems pretty explanatory. With the success of the Sopranos and Sex and the City, premium Cable showed that narrative shows with money pumped into it could get awards and make enough money to be profitable (an awful lot like the Oscars during the late 90s now that I think about it). Less premium than HBO followed, with FX and Showtime throwing money into good work. Now even AMC and Bravo have quality work (actually AMC has the best. Which is odd I suppose).

So here we are in the golden age of television. Expect more from me. Sometime next week I'll talk a bit about British TV.

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